Error

Brandom and Brandom’s Hegel highlight the centrality of the experience of error in any learning process. In section VI of the Conclusion to Spirit of Trust, he says this is “because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency are equally fundamental, primordial features of the way things are”. This simple double-edged insight, I would argue, has been approached by many, possibly as far back as Plato. I have wanted to affirm both theses since childhood, without ever being quite satisfied with the level of inter-articulation achieved. Most authors are better in their treatment of one side of this than the other. I think Brandom has shed unprecedented light on how the bases of these contrasting insights are not only compossible, but actually interdependent.

Mastery as a model of rationality turns out to be a non-starter. Mastery turns out to be an anti-model of rationality, not the thing that putatively shows where rationality goes wrong. The pragmatic workings of rationality through the experience of error — analyzed by Brandom in fine detail — are in fact radically opposed to Mastery. Not only beliefs but the understood meanings of determinate empirical concepts have an intrinsic instability that cannot be reduced away. Rationality has to do in large part with a responsiveness to this instability — how we recognize our own conceptual errors and respond to them.

Many have written eloquently but ultimately onesidedly about the rationality of the world OR the failure and badness of Mastery or some analogue of it, without adequately developing the deep connection between these two. Brandom has performed a world-historic service to humanity in showing a way beyond this impasse.

Brandom says that for Hegel, there is and could be no set of determinate empirical concepts that when correctly applied would not eventually generate incompatible commitments in some new situation. Brute immediacy gives rise to noninferential perceptual commitments that cannot be integrated into our previous best schema.

This is how immediacy has an irreducible role in experience — not as some foundational guarantee of mastery, but quite the opposite, as a sort of surplus ensuring the inevitability of eventual error from the most impeccable procedure, and hence of a need to perennially revise our commitments and possibly our concepts. As the disparity between subjective and objective forms of conceptual content, it is a principle of instability providing a normative demand for change. As Hegel puts it, the evanescent itself must be regarded as essential. This is the way Hegel recovers a role for something like Kantian sensibility or intuition as a complement to the conceptual.

As Brandom says, this requires reconceptualizing both truth and determinateness. Truth can no longer be simply thought of as a prospective goal (as if it were determined beforehand, entirely independent of our process of seeking it), because any fully determinate prospective goal will eventually be invalidated. One of Hegel’s great original thoughts is that genuine, deeper truth will not stay still, as it were. The principal locus of truth shifts to a truth-process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s